I think you misunderstand what I mean when I say dark. I don’t mean the night time, when the sun goes beyond the horizon, with the light fading into bruised decay. I don’t mean when the electricity goes out and you’re in the shower, soap in your eyes, frantically searching for a towel.
When I say that monsters find you in the dark, I mean an empty, lifeless place. An abyss. A place well-lit can be filled with despair. Empty and lifeless.
I remember meeting a monster, face-to-face, for the first time. It was a warm fall afternoon, with the sun shining bright as could be. I’d just finished working early and went for a walk in the park, wrapping my fingers around a paper cup of coffee. Just cream, no sugar. It had just finished its swirl when I looked up in time to receive a shoulder to my face.
My nose was spilling blood everywhere, on my clothes, on her clothes, and mixed in with the brown liquid. The pain was excruciating and my ears had been filled with a sharp ringing. My nose wasn’t broken, but the pain hadn’t still pretty bad. Holding my hand up to my bleeding nose, I finally looked up.
She was beautiful, my monster. Her hair was long and red, much like the leaves falling around us. Her eyes were green and dancing, and I thought I could see a merry soul in her. Her black coat was wet, and her face was aghast.
“I’m so sorry!” she had said. Her hands were digging in her purse, looking for tissues. “I’m so careless.” I watched her, my eyes wide. She was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen. I could barely manage a thank you when she handed me a few tissues with her small, gentle hands.
Shaking her head, the monster had taken my other hand in hers, eyes wide. “Do you need me to take you to a hospital?” She seemed desperate to help me. I shook my head. I was thinking of two things at that moment: how fast had she been walking to do that much harm, and how I could just stare at her forever. Clearing my throat, I finally spoke.
“Please, don’t worry about it. I wasn’t paying that much attention either, really.” I fake laughed, trying to make it seem like everything was fine. My clothes had been perfectly ruined. She was dissatisfied with that answer, pulling out a small wallet. “At least let me buy you coffee. Are you free?”
Again I was stunned. I nodded before my mind comprehended what I had just done. Smiling suddenly, she had grabbed my hand gently and pulled me behind her, back to the coffee shop I had just come from.
A few minutes later, I was sat across from this woman with a fresh cup of coffee, with both cream and sugar in it. I had no idea what to say. I thanked her, thinking she’d leave right after. But she stayed. I found it quite odd, but as she’d already had such an effect on me already, I hadn’t minded all that much. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” she said all the sudden, startling me.
“W-what?” I managed, picking up the coffee. “What do you mean?”
Running her light fingers over a stray length of red hair, she said, “Well, you look very familiar. I don’t know too many people, even for living in this place for as long as I have.” Mid-sip I looked at her, confused. I had wondered what she was getting at.
“Well, perhaps a name would help,” she said finally, looking at me expectantly. Her lips tugged into a sincere smile, her hand holding up her head. I was slightly reluctant, but I complied. “I’m Bri,” I said, placing the cup on the table. “Bri Leeds.”
“Bri!” she exclaimed, looking excited for whatever reason. “What a beautiful name! Do you work at Greta’s?” Greta’s Stop was a design boutique. My friends convinced me to apply after graduating two years ago, so I had more time to spend with them. I nodded again. “Yep, I work there full time. You shop there regularly?”
“Oh, yes!” she said, sitting up straight. “I buy most of my clothes there, actually!” I had noticed some of her clothes looked familiar when she said that. But I realized she hadn’t offered up her name. “What’s your name, then?” I asked, looking her in the eye. I wasn’t letting it slide by.
She paused, her green eyes darting. The monster, now that I think about it, looked a bit trapped. “Melanie,” she replied, her voice now low, more serious. “Not as lovely as your name, that’s for sure.” I managed a small smile. “Nice to meet you, Melanie.” I felt my nose had stopped bleeding at that point and took the tissues away from my face. The pain had subsided too.
“My, what a beautiful face you have,” she said, twirling her hair now. “I do so apologize for walking so fast. But, perhaps, it’s fate, as I get to meet a beautiful girl such as you.” Despite the weird feeling in the pit of my stomach, my face had turned slightly pink at the compliment. My heart skipped a beat, watching those gentle fingers twisting, turning that long red hair. “T-thank you,” I stammered, “but really you are much prettier than me.”
Leaning forward, her green eyes had widened. “Oh, no! It’s rare to find one with eyes like yours, or hair so dark, like the night sky!” Referring to my brown eyes, which many had told me changed colors in the light and with my moods, I blushed even more. “They are nothing compared to yours.” And it was true. No one could have hair that red without dying it. Or at least in my experience. I looked down, staring into my cold cup of coffee. The light and dark had mellowed out, settling into a murky tan. Bland and boring.
And it was then the monster’s hand touched mine. I lost then. I should have realized my misfortune in those green eyes, in the lips that whispered that I should take a walk with her, in the way she knitted her fingers between mine. But I was enamored from that moment, and I remember when I had unlocked the door to my apartment and led her inside. I can still feel those fingers running through my hair as her lips touched mine. They were ruby red, pressing desperately. And her scent entered my blood as I touched her skin, entwined in her hair like a web that I still can’t escape. Her soft voice and gasping breath were the only things that I heard. Her trembling body under mine, above mine, nearby as we lay there was no different from my own.
But most monsters hide in sheep’s clothing.
It was another bright day when I opened my eyes. The only thing covering me was the comforter and her arms, wrapped around my waist. Crème walls intensified the sunlight. I heard her groan, pulling closer.
I felt odd, at best. My body didn’t feel quite right. No, it was my soul. It felt so… empty. I remember when I held my hand in front of my face, staring at it in the light, I could see every detail, but not understand it. I had wondered if it was my body that I was looking at, or a stranger’s. I felt her stir, the monster from last night, whispering for me. Bri, right? Yeah, of course. Why would I question my own name?
That’s when I realized just how cold her hands were.
Her hands held tighter and tighter, and I wondered if I could remove them without waking her. She was already awake, though, looking up at me. But her eyes were not the same. They were still the same shade of green, the ones that had peering at me in the darkness of my room, searching me for all of my vulnerabilities. Except they were deep and hollow, with no end to them. They were an abyss. They were dark.
I froze. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t breathe. This woman had been so beautiful and bright and cheerful, like the fall leaves. She was the same person, but there were the holes, the crinkling shape and curling edges, browning. I pushed myself out of bed, pulling her hands away from my waist. Mirrors hold many truths, and the one mine showed me was terrifying. I was me. I was the one I’d always been. But I looked desaturated, like all the blood had been drained out of me.
The light and dark had mellowed out, settling into a murky tan. Bland and boring.
Her red lips had been next to my ear, whispering again. “Bright eyes, such as yours, are odd for hair so dark.” Her fingers laced themselves into my hair, more like talons now. Her lips trailed from my ear to my collar bone, and I felt the sensation, but tinged with fear.
“I’ve searched for a feeling such as this for many years,” she said, her fingers trailing. I gasped, my body growing colder and dimmer. “It’s hard to find many so willing at just the touch of a hand.”
I remember, as her hands cupped and fondled my fading self, detaching and looking back, and seeing her. It was the same woman, the woman with the long red hair. But she was different. In the light, she seemed to adjust. And by adjust, I mean her body shifted, like a chameleon camouflaging.
She was definitely a monster, with eyes dark, and she knew that I saw.
Today, her eyes are brown, changing color in the light. Today, her hair is black like mine used to be. Today, I have counted 543 wounds on my arm. She puts them there, the monster. Her long nails cut into me every hour, counting down the hours before I surely bleed to death. But the feeling of her touch takes the pain away, for sure….
I think you misunderstand what I mean when I say dark. I don’t mean the night time, when the sun goes beyond the horizon, with the light fading into bruised decay. I don’t mean when the electricity goes out and you’re in the shower, soap in your eyes, frantically searching for a towel.
Maybe you’ve seen what I’ve seen… Probably, you haven’t, but just maybe you have. Either way, I know what I’ve seen, and that’s what matters most, as far as I’m concerned. Believe what you will, I’ve never cared about that part of things before. I know it’s out there, and you should too, in case it decides you’re next.
I have no recollection of when the first time I saw it was… as far as I can remember, it was always there. I do know that it first started while living with my grandparents, but actually nailing down when its first appearance was is a bit difficult. We (my little sister and I) were taken into state custody when I was 4 and were finally returned to our mother a month after my 10th birthday. I can honestly say, those years where probably the best of my childhood. But everything has a price, and the price for those years of bliss always came at night.
I remember the first time I saw it. I was woken out of a dead sleep one night. I couldn’t figure out what woke me, and I sort of laid there in a groggy stupor, trying to gain my bearings. I quickly noticed the urge to pee, so I got up, walked the 5 steps or so it took to go from my bedroom to the bathroom and did my business.
As I returned to my bedroom, I froze in the doorway. I scanned my room, a feeling a dread slowly welling up inside my small, child frame. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, I shrugged it off and climbed back into bed. See, I’ve always had the habit of falling asleep to horror movies or scary shows (usually Tales from the Crypt), so I chalked it up to a vividly wild imagination and that damned Crypt-Keeper.
As the toilet ceased filling it’s tank and the hissing of running water died out and eventually went mute, I noticed a distinct tapping noise. It sounded like a dog’s nails on hardwood floor… Except the dogs were all asleep, in the front yard, and our floors were carpeted. I was shaken by the noise for a second, but quickly tried to reason in my young mind that I was hearing things, all fueled by my addiction to scary shit. So I pulled my pillow over my head and tried to go back to sleep. That’s when the tapping got louder, and it’s tone changed. It no longer sounded like dog nails on hardwood. It sounded like fingernails tapping on glass. And it sounded like it was coming from above me. Coming from my bedroom window.
Tentatively, I pulled the pillow from my head and slowly shifted my gaze to the window. What I saw chilled me to the bone. Red eyes glared at me from the other side of the window, malevolence bleeding from them like a stuck pig. Sharp fangs lined a pair of lips that were pulled back like a snarling tiger. It’s face was covered with short black fur and it had a pair of twisted horns sprouting from its forehead. I could make out the shadow of huge, leathery wings, coming off its back. When it caught my stare, it’s snarl quickly shifted to the most evil grin I could possibly fathom.
I was paralyzed as soon as I made eye contact, and in my head I could hear a strange, deep, gravelly voice speaking to me, but the language I didn’t and still don’t know. All I know is it sounded ancient and felt cruel. I don’t know how long we stayed that way, but all of a sudden, I was able to break my stare and immediately screamed like a little girl.
“Jon, Jon! What’s wrong???” my grandmother pleaded with me when she entered my room. I just sat there, blubbering like a baby, pointing at my window, and occasionally letting out an indecipherable squeak as I struggled to regain my composure and remember how to speak.
“The devil is on the roof,” I was finally able to say.
Now, before I continue, I must explain. I have always been agnostic. I absolutely believe there is a higher power, though I refuse to label it/him/her/they with any conventional names. A name is simply a way to identify someone, and we should be able to identify the higher power on a spiritual level. Just my belief. I DO NOT believe in the devil. Just a scapegoat for the ugly side of humanity. Again, just my belief.
“The devil is on the roof.” I repeated after Grandma gave me a quizzical look.
“Jon, you were dreaming. I keep telling you to stop watching those stories before bed. This is why… You just had a very vivid nightmare is all.”
I wanted so badly to believe Grandma, but I knew what I had seen. Still, I laid back down and Grandma sat in there with me until I was asleep again. I woke up to a bright morning and no more incidents…
The next night, I’m lying in bed, watching, you guessed it, Tales from the Crypt, when I hear the tapping again. This time I know it’s not a nightmare, as I still haven’t fallen asleep yet. I tried to ignore it, but the tapping got increasingly louder the longer I resisted. I was afraid the damn thing was going to break the window, and in my fear, I quickly glanced toward the window.
As soon as my eyes landed upon its horrible visage, I was frozen in place again. This time, the voice either spoke in English, or it gave me some way to understand it, but I clearly heard it say, “Come with me. You have been forsaken. We will never forsake you.”
“We? Who the heck is we?” I thought to myself.
“We are many. We are one. We are here for you. And we aren’t leaving without you.” It responded, and that’s when I realized it could hear my thoughts. “We can do more than just hear your thoughts. We can watch your memories. We can taste your fear.”
And with that, I felt a horrid pain in my head, my vision flared stark white, shifted to bright crimson, and finally faded to black as I lost consciousness.
I awoke lying on my floor in the fetal position, although the last I could remember I had been laying on my back in my bed, having a telepathic conversation with what I truly believed to be a demon. I was soaked in sweat and was shivering uncontrollably. I pulled myself off the floor and wobbled to the bathroom. I stripped out of my sweat-drenched clothes, climbed in a shower and just let the hot water run over me, warming my still chilled flesh and bones.
I didn’t feel like me… It’s hard to explain, but I was an energetic, happy, exuberant little boy… That morning, however, I felt a dark, brooding energy hanging over me. I didn’t want to be around people, and even though it was starting to terrify me at night, I didn’t want to leave my bedroom all that day.
This continued nightly. Every night I would either be awoken, or summoned to look, by a persistent tapping on my window. And when I finally would look, I’d get locked into the trance like state that instigated our mental exchanges. And every day I’d become more and more introverted.
One particularly hot summer night, I woke up to an entirely new sound. The tapping had been replaced by a scratching sound. As I slowly opened my eyes, I felt a draft come through my open window.
WHO OPENED MY WINDOW?!? And then I remembered… I remembered my Grandma coming into my room and saying how hot it was. I remembered begging her not to open the window. And her begrudgingly agreeing to leave it closed.
She must have opened it when I fell asleep… And the scratching continued, louder, closer to my head.
“Come with me.” The gravelly voice, but this time it was audible. I hadn’t looked toward my window, using every ounce of willpower I could muster in the hopes of avoiding that trance like state. But the shock of actually hearing that voice with my own ears was enough to snap my head around out of surprise, my eyes immediately fixating upon this beast that tormented me nightly.
It opened its mouth and a barbed, forked tongue slithered out and flicked the air like a snake. It reached an unproportioned, sinewy arm covered in short, black bristles through my window, and tried to grab at me. In the process, it broke our stare, and I was able to look from the window and move my body again. As I lunged off my bed and toward the door, one of its razor sharp (who knew?) claws sunk deep into the meat of my shoulder. I screamed out in sheer agony as its claw tore through skin and muscle, splashing blood across my bedding and one of the walls.
Grandma came running to my room, opened the door, and froze. I don’t know if it was the blood, the beast, a combination of the two, or something else entirely, but she too let out a scream. I heard the hard flap of leathery wings and felt a hard breeze push against my back from the window. Grandpa arrived at my bedroom door, glanced around the room, saw the gore on the bed and wall and immediately had me up in his arms, rushing me to the truck and then rushing to the hospital.
The doctor said I must have snagged my shoulder on a nail in my sleep, but couldn’t understand how I could get cut so long, deep and with such a “clean” cut from a nail. 14 stitches in my shoulder, a tetanus shot, and we were sent home with a preventative antibiotic to keep my shoulder from getting infected.
That was the last time I ever saw that thing. I know it exists. What it is, I don’t know. What it wanted though, seems clear. It wanted me.
Occasionally, I’ll still here a tapping on my window, like fingernails on glass, despite it being over 20 years since the incident I just wrote about. My skin crawls and my blood runs cold when I hear it. But I keep not only the window closed, but the blinds stay closed at night too, just to be sure that I’ll never get caught by its hypnotic stare again, never hear that horrible voice playing around inside my brain again.
It’s out there, right now, looking for victims. This much I know for sure… Because, some nights, after I’ve fallen asleep, I’ll dream things. I’ll be gliding over houses, and land on the roof of one. I’ll lean over the edge of the roof and tap on the window with claws that are clearly not mine. And then I’ll hear, clear as day, MY voice purring, “Come with me.” before my eyes snap open and I wake up…
Credit: Jon P.
“Shit” I said to myself, as I poured out the last bit of water in my three liter Poland Spring jug into the pot above my portable gas range. I tossed the empty tube of plastic aside and it clattered against a mess of garbage in a corner, making a hell of a racket when it hit the floor. The amount of water filled the pot barely over a quarter of the way, very much under the least amount necessary to cook most things. I opened the cabinets of my recently new home’s kitchen in desperate search for food, finding only the empty wrappers and boxes of morsels previously ingested in the dusty compartments.
Buried among old plastic cracker sleeves and rat shit was a box of pasta. I feverishly pulled it to me and embraced it as if it were my own child. I returned to my pot, only to see that there was still almost no water in it. I dejectedly put the box of pasta next to the pot’s lid on the kitchen counter, and sighed deeply; staring at me from the floor where I threw it upon first moving into this home, that wasn’t my own, was a can of old dog food, the label scratched off over the months or years it’s been in this home before I. Feeling the pangs of hunger in my gut, I took my hunting knife and cleaved the can in twain, voraciously yet reluctantly eating the contents to get something in my stomach.
After finishing my impromptu meal, I curled up in a ball on the floor. I looked up at the front door just a few feet in front of me, still boarded up to hell and back as I left it, and began to let my mind wander. ‘You’ll have to go out there sometime’ I told myself. I shuddered at the thought, letting my own case of sudden agoraphobia prevent me from once again entering the Outside World. Since the world was engulfed in the flames of nuclear war, I found myself inside the home of a no-doubt doomed family that was on vacation when the bombs fell. The terrified screams of mothers clutching their children as the bombs falling in the distance grew ever closer bolstered a nail in my psyche and a nail in the door of this home, to prevent me from going Outside ever again. There was nothing out there for me. But now, against all of the notions I believe in, there was- survival.
Before the bombs, I lived for many years as a drifter, knowing how to survive by rendering garbage and the little I found into sustainable nourishment to keep my twenty seven year old body going. But now that the world has ended, finding what was once everywhere would be nearly impossible. Markets and small stores would have been cleared out by my fellow tribesmen in a desperate attempt to cling to existence. Worse yet, I fear that those that survived and are now, like myself, without food have turned to a… different, form of sustenance. The slim prospect of survival has driven others in better situations than I to the forbidden territory of human flesh, so I fear who, or what I suppose, may lay Out in the world beyond my door.
But as my stomach growled, not sated by the lackluster meal of various processed animals meats pressed into a can, I knew that I soon would have to leave my comfort zone. While being homeless for a long time has made me quite resilient, I am nothing more than a skeleton without proper nutrition. I worried that I would bumble into a much stronger survivor and be easy prey, or perhaps worse yet, have someone break into my sanctuary whilst I am away. ‘You can do without what lies on the other side’ I said aloud to myself, clutching my stomach, now in knots. I can do it. I can. I must.
These positive thoughts were cut short when the bile in my gut manifested as a pile of putrid regurgitation on the wood floor. Now completely empty and slightly dehydrated, I had no choice. I dug through my satchel next to the range for my hammer, and started yanking out nails, one by one, from the boards pounded against the door.
All of my love, all of my kissin’
You don’t know what you’ve been missin’, oh boy
When you’re with me, oh boy.
The song I had heard many years ago escaped my lips as I toiled to get the door open. The name of the singer faded from my memory, all I remember were the glasses. I get the last nail off the last plank in the door, and stack them next to the entrance, now only inches of wood shielding me from the Outside. I took a deep breath, and opened the door. The hazy sky was a dark green, ash and small debris dancing in the wind. The temperature was both warm and cold at the same time, and I was immediately sick to my stomach. Clenching my teeth and my fists, I stepped out, eyes shuttered intensely as I lurched forward, one very deliberate step at a time.
I moved forward until I hit the street, and I slowly opened my eyes. Not another soul in sight as far as the eye could see. I gradually opened my eyes until they were fully revealed. The house I was in sat right in front of the remnants of the Grand Central Parkway- or was it the Jackie Robinson? Below on the roadway were dozens of immobilized, abandoned cars, rusted and depressing. I stared down at them for a long moment, leaning on the chainlink fence that kept me from plunging over, before my growling stomach prodded me to keep going. The hellish sky was a baroque nightmare; no gods or angels, as the dark air was the perfect embodiment of harm and evil itself. I clutched my hunting knife in my waistband as I moved forward, the world feeling as if it were a thick sheet enveloping and suffocating me as I strolled. In the distance, I saw what looked like a crashed car. Intrigued, I began moving slightly faster toward it, hoping someone else’s tragic loss was my tragic gain.
All of my life, I’ve been a-waitin’
Tonight there’ll be no, hesitatin’ oh boy,
when you’re with me, oh boy.
Upon reaching it, I could see the fender of the sedan wrapped partway around a light pole, the partially decayed corpse of the unfortunate driver wrapped in a deflated air bag, the trunk popped slightly open from the sheer force of the impact. I looked at the deceased motorist for a moment before I opened the trunk, hoping to find something good, or, at the very least, something. As it had been stuck in this position for an unknown period of time, the boot took some effort to open. Upon doing so, I squealed with glee: the back was filled with bags of food and water, almost all of the former in bags and cans. I took my satchel and emptied all I had in it: my favorite book, a baseball cap, a pair of sunglasses, and an old locket my mother had given me when I was but a child. I began stuffing my now empty bag with as much as I could stuff into it, which was about 60% of what was there in the trunk. I put the satchel back on, and carried the rest in the plastic bags they came in back to my new home. I stepped on the book as I turned, smudging the second word in the title with dirt and grime, leaving only ‘Dante’s’ visible as I began my walk back.
Stars appear and shadows a-falling
You can hear my heart a-calling.
A little bit a-lovin’ makes everything right,
And I’m gonna see my baby tonight.
I slowed my singing to a hum as I opened my door, closing it behind me. I piled the wood up in front of it, to board it back up after I had ate. I unpacked everything, and a few Poland Spring bottles among the groceries, that I used to fill the pot up the rest of the way for the pasta. I happily tapped the top of the box of rigatoni as I passed it, organizing the food into a corner. Finishing that, I turned the range on to let the water boil, pulling my knife from my waist and laying it across the top of the pot, an old trick I learned to avoid water boiling over. I went upstairs to the bedroom to put on a robe I found in the closet, gleefully eating a chocolate bar as I did so. When I got the comfortable garment on, I finished my bar and crumpled the wrapper in my hand. I heard a noise from downstairs, and thought the knife slipped off and into the pot, because I didn’t properly position it.
I went down the stairs and entered the kitchen, to see the knife gone, but nowhere to be found, much less in the pot. But, it turned out, the noise I had heard before was actually the pot lid from earlier, spinning on its handle gently against the hard plastic countertop, combined with the sound of a slight breeze coming in from the wide open door.
Credit: Elias D. Tavarez
When I was young, we were left unattended. My friends and I rode our bikes deep into the fields and returned at our leisure. We rarely played in the same location and often ditched it after a few days. With each new adventure, we drifted further from civilization, and one day, we struck gold, figuratively speaking of course.
We came across a massive field which seemed to stretch endlessly in all directions. It appeared to be abandoned farmland, and the grasses and weeds had grown past our waists. The entire area was completely silent as if we had broken the sound barrier, and to some degree, our voices seemed several octaves higher than normal. Whenever we went there, we lifted our bikes over a rotted, wooden fence, and then, we pedaled through the field. It quickly became one of our favorite locations.
Our last excursion stuck with me the most. It was the day we discovered the farmhouse.
I have no idea how we never noticed it before. It was just there, but somehow, we overlooked it. We rode over to the house to observe it up close, and it appeared more beautiful from a distance. The age was clear in the peeling paint, the shoddy shutters, and the broken windows. The farmhouse was two stories tall, possibly three, and had a large veranda, smudged with grime. The porch extended around the house, and we noticed a rickety porch swing, creaking back and forth on a rusted chain. There was no wind.
While I was left pondering this, my friends abandoned their bikes by the wayside and dashed across the dirt road. I abandoned my bike as well and followed them hesitantly. I turned to my left and right. Just like the field, the dirt road extended into oblivion.
“Guys, what if somebody lives here?” I asked. My main concern was disturbing the homeowner and getting kicked off the property.
“Oh c’mon! There’s nobody here!” George called back. George was the most adventurous of the three of us. His confidence usually got us all in trouble.
I decided to trust him and crossed to the other side of the dirt road. Both of my friends were already standing on the porch. “Can you see inside?”
Ryan, my other friend, shook his head. “There’s a thick curtain in the way. It smells really musty over here.”
I had to agree with him. It smelled old and decrepit. The porch above all else seemed to be in the worst state of decay, but somehow, it held our weight. Curiously, we wandered all the way around the house. If anyone lived there, they would have heard us because the wood squeaked terribly. Each step made me cringe, but when nobody confronted us, I eventually relaxed.
None of us voiced it, but we all wanted to break into the house. It seemed too soon for that; we’d have to wait a week or so. We had to be absolutely sure that the farmhouse was vacant.
The backyard was nothing spectacular. It was overgrown like the rest of the land. There was a crumpled shed several yards away along with a rusted pick-up. We put off exploring them and continued around the house until we reached the front once more. We scurried off to collect our bikes, but we became sidetracked when George discovered an opening in the lattice which led underneath the porch.
Naturally, we were beyond excited. I inched myself halfway through the opening and confirmed that we could easily fit. That’s when I noticed the look in George’s eyes. He was about to make a bet.
“I bet that I can crawl through there faster than you!” he insisted with crossed arms.
I lost our previous bet, so I needed to redeem myself. Betting was our thing, and it often involved races whether on our bikes or on foot. Because of this, Ryan always kept a stopwatch handy.
“Fine.” I didn’t bother creating ultimatums. Nothing scared us.
“I’ll go first,” I offered. I wanted the lay of the land, so George couldn’t rig anything. I crouched down beside the opening and waited for Ryan to retrieve the stopwatch from his bike. The dirt was clammy beneath my hands, and I noticed lichens growing along the foundation of the house. I tried not to think of spiders or snakes. We had done worse things than this. “Wait a second. I want my eyes to adjust,” I told my friends. I didn’t want to risk bumping my head against anything.
“Are you ready?” Ryan muttered, raising the stopwatch.
“Yeah.” Okay. Maybe, I was a bit nervous.
I forced myself through the opening and felt the lattice clawing at my clothes. I tugged my hips inside and took a hard right, crawling straight for the first turn. Once I reached it, the tunnel narrowed, and I was forced to army crawl. I felt the grime smearing into my arms and soaking into my clothes. I pressed onward and dug my shoes into the ground, practically dragging myself along. As soon as reached the second turn, I felt a draft, but I tried my best to ignore the chilly air. Even so, the air seemingly grew colder, especially from my left, until it felt like ice was pressing against my ribs. The longer stretch before me must have been the back porch, and I felt disheartened when the tunnel remained narrow. If anything, it seemed narrower than before.
As soon as I passed the halfway mark, I heard frenzied scuffling. The tunnel was too narrow for me to turn around, but I knew it was one of my friends, probably George. I felt him grab my ankle, jerking me sharply backward. I caught myself on the lattice and kicked backward angrily, hitting my friend square in the face. “You cheater!” I screamed. I army crawled faster than ever before. My friend was persistent though, and I heard him right behind me. I blocked everything out and dug my arms mercilessly into the ground, clawing myself through the tunnel until I burst out of the opening. I was breathing heavily and covered head to foot with nasty, red clay.
“What the hell is the matter with you!” I screamed at Ryan. Ryan was standing there timidly, and of course, George was nowhere to be seen. They were both cheaters! Ryan was quivering, and he extended the stopwatch to me.
“You were under there for 27 minutes!”
“What? No, I wasn’t!” I snatched the stopwatch from Ryan and stared down at 27 minutes, 32 seconds. “You guys are messed up.” Ryan clearly never reset the watch. I stopped shouting as soon as Ryan began crying.
“That’s not funny, Sam! We were worried. We were calling for you, and you weren’t responding. George went in there about ten minutes ago to search for you.”
I didn’t know what to think of this. I stomped over to the opening and began calling for George but received no response. “You guys never called for me,” I replied stubbornly, glaring at Ryan who was still sobbing.
Ryan allowed the stopwatch to keep running. When another 15 minutes passed, we were sick of waiting for George. “We’ll just go back in and find him. You can go to the right. It’s more open that way. I’ll go to the left. We’ll meet in the middle.” Ryan seemed reluctant of the plan. I convinced him to squeeze inside after me, and we split up.
This was all George’s fault. He probably threatened Ryan to go along with it. I was going to kick George’s ass when we got out of here. When I crawled beneath the back porch, I heard scuffling ahead of me. “George?” I called.
“No, it’s me!”
I narrowed my eyes in confusion when I met Ryan in the middle. “Did you find George?”
“No, did you?”
My heart skipped a few beats. “No.”
By this point, we were both unnerved, and I had to help Ryan turn around. I couldn’t go backward through the tunnel since it was so narrow. It took us several minutes, but we reached the opening without a hitch. We lingered around the front porch and wondered if we had missed George somehow. That was the irrational side of me thinking. Those tunnels barely fit one person, let alone two! It would have been impossible for George to pass us going in the opposite direction.
We waited until nightfall for George to reveal himself, but he never did. We called out to him and warned him that we were leaving. It was growing so dark. We didn’t want to linger any longer. We crossed to our bikes, covered in that foul, red clay, and warned him one final time. Reluctantly, we pedaled away from the farmhouse and followed the dirt road home.
Our parents were forced to believe us when George didn’t return that night. The cops were called, and the next morning, we led them to the field and the lonely farmhouse. We described what happened in detail and watched them knock on the front door, waiting tirelessly for someone to answer. When nobody did, they went to investigate the opening in the lattice. The cops were too big to fit. While they were searching the perimeter, I went to retrieve George’s bike from where we left it, but it was gone.
George was never found, and the case was closed.
Eleven years later, there was a development in the long forgotten case. Our city went through a period of rapid urbanization, and our county began buying up the adjacent farmland. The old farmhouse was demolished, but there was sickening discovery at its core. The entire foundation was layered in dried blood and scattered with small bones. The bones belonged to children and were covered in harsh bite marks.
Credit: Ariel Lowe
Over the past month, I’ve been hearing this intermittent, buzzing sound. At first, I thought I’d be able to tune it out, but it just became more obnoxious over time. It transformed into a constant, vibrating noise in the back of my head. It was difficult to focus on anything. It became so bad that I had trouble sleeping, and it’s beyond me how my parents never noticed it. You know what they say though. You lose hearing with age, so I wasn’t surprised when they gave me confused looks. Tyler, my neighbor, heard it too, and I was relieved at that. It meant I wasn’t going crazy. He’s actually the one that brought it up when we were in my bedroom playing video games. So with him at my side, I was determined to find the source of this noise.
We searched my house first and placed our ears all over the walls. The buzzing sound never seemed to become stronger or weaker, so we checked outside. My original thought was that something was wrong with the air conditioning unit. If I was right, it would explain why the sound transferred throughout the entire house, but my theory was wrong. We stood beside the thrumming unit, watching the gigantic fan spin around inside. The unit was vibrating, but it wasn’t the sound we were looking for.
However, we realized the sound was louder outside than it had been in my room.
We searched my backyard up and down and stopped at the wooden fence surrounding my yard. We placed our ears to the fence and exchanged a knowing stare. The sound was coming from beyond the fence, and that was enough for the both of us. We climbed the fence and dropped easily to the other side.
The area beyond my backyard was filled with untouched forest. I had been over my fence a few times when I accidentally kicked a soccer ball over but not often enough times to explore. My parents always complained about there being poison ivy everywhere, and there was. We skirted around it and created a path without a problem. It was really bizarre though. All we could hear was this buzzing sound – nothing else. I mean, we could just barely hear the leaves and sticks cracking beneath our feet, and all other sounds seemed absent. There weren’t even birds singing.
As we kept walking, the buzzing sound grew louder, and eventually, we couldn’t see my fence anymore. We stopped several yards from a cluster of trees covered in tumor-like growths. We just stood there, staring at it, and neither of us could explain what they were. They appeared like they were apart of the tree as if the bark had bubbled outward in these strange formations. Trees can actually develop deformed growths called burls, something I learned in hindsight. Naturally though, our first thoughts were to poke it, but both of us were too chicken to get any closer. So, we grabbed rocks instead. It only took one toss; Tyler was a baseball player. The rock collided with one of the large growths, and upon contact, the growth exploded outward which sent chunks flying.
Not even seconds later, bees, thousands of bees, swarmed out of the opening and formed into a thick, throbbing mass. Both of us screamed and ran. I had never run faster in my entire life. The bees were hot on our heels, and I felt their stingers plunging into my arms, my back, and my legs. I don’t remember hopping the fence or how I arrived in my front yard, but I must have been screaming bloody murder. I stripped down to my underwear, and my mom began spraying me and the persistent bees with the garden hose. The icy, pressurized water didn’t hurt as bad as the welts that formed instantly.
I was ushered into the kitchen, and my mom began meticulously removing the stingers with a pair of tweezers. She lost count of how many she removed from my body. I was only allowed to change into dry underwear since the stings needed to be iced. The swelling and welts had been unimaginable, and now, I understand how people can die from bee stings. I was forced onto the couch with ice packs positioned all over my body. The majority of the stings were on my back, so I laid on my stomach and must have passed out some time later.
I woke the next day in the same position, and the ice packs had been removed. My mom refused to let me change into comfortable clothing until she inspected all of the welts. Thankfully, the swelling had reduced significantly since the previous day. Over a bowl of soup, I learned that my parents called an exterminator after the incident. Apparently, there had been bees angrily flying around our yard and some of the neighbors’ yards. By that point, everyone on our street could hear the enraged buzzing.
The exterminator arrived promptly and followed the trail of chaotic bees back to the nest. The man actually told my parents that it had been the largest colony he had ever seen. He sprayed so many chemicals that he didn’t want anyone near the area, not that anyone wanted to go investigate for themselves. The whole situation made me feel like a complete idiot. How could we have been so stupid?
My only consolation was that Tyler might have suffered just as bad as me from the bee stings. I brought this up to my parents and asked how bad his injuries were. My mother gave me this petrified expression that I’ll never forget. There had been nobody behind me when I raced around the side of my house. She hadn’t even been aware that Tyler had gone back there with me. I felt guilty, beyond guilty. Horrible images of Tyler being swarmed consumed me. I swore that he had been right beside me. What made me feel worse is that the exterminator never saw anyone. If Tyler had fallen behind, the exterminator would have known because he searched the entire area for nests.
About a week after the incident, Tyler was still missing. I decided to search the area for myself, but I wasn’t going unprepared. I grabbed a can of my mother’s hairspray along with a lighter from the kitchen. If any of these bees were still kicking, then I wanted protection. I hopped the fence and moved slowly through the forest, my right hand clenched tightly on the hairspray. The distance to the nest was much further than I remembered. I knew that I had arrived when I heard a thick crunch beneath my shoes. I glanced down and felt a shiver rush through my body. The entire ground was layered with bee corpses. I couldn’t see the dirt or grass, and in some areas, the bees just piled on top of each other.
I was on my last nerve when I approached the nests, trying my best to ignore the sickening crunches underfoot. I narrowed my eyes at the nest that we destroyed, and when I rounded the tree, the rest of the nests became apparent, nearly ten times larger. I cautiously nudged one of the nests which crumbled and revealed thick wax and honeycomb. Dead bees trapped inside of the nest oozed through the opening, and it was enough to turn my stomach. I grumbled beneath my breath and began poking the nest with more confidence, watching more of the pieces fall to the ground.
That’s when I heard the buzzing return. My heart skipped several beats, and I stumbled backwards and almost landed in the disgusting ruin of dead bees. I sprinted back several feet and raised the hairspray and lighter, watching the nest from all angles. These bees could appear from anywhere. They must have formed their nests throughout this cluster of trees, and it was very possible that their nests extended into the ground and beneath the roots. I bit my lip and waited for the swarm to appear like last time, but it never did. Instead, an odd and disturbing sight took me by surprise. I left the clearing filled with dead bees and stepped through several bushes, trying to confirm what I was seeing. My whole body quivered, and I wanted to call out. My voice failed me though, and it might have saved my life.
Not even ten yards from me was Tyler. He was just standing there with his back facing me, and something was wrong. His movements were off. His body was twitching involuntarily, and when he took a step, his posture was rigid while his arms were locked in janky positions. Despite the horrible feeling in my gut, I wanted to call out to him. My concern quickly transformed into fear. Tyler turned and lolled his head to the side as if his neck were broken. He knew I was here, yet he couldn’t see me. His eyes were gone. Two dark sockets stared back at me with bees crawling out of them. Sores layered his flesh which had turned into gaping holes, and a viscous fluid was running down his chin. I was too scared to move. I only ran when Tyler began lumbering toward me, swaying back and forth and twitching.
For the second time, I screamed and ran for the hills, trying to outrun the crashes coming from behind me. When I scrambled over the fence, I felt the wood scraping my skin, but I didn’t care. I pounded on my back door crazily and slammed it shut once my mother let me inside. She didn’t understand much of what I was saying since I was hysterical, but she gathered that I had found Tyler’s body in the woods.
By the time the police arrived, they waited for me to calm down, so I could explain what I saw. I was a mess, and they must have thought that I was nuts. They searched in the area where I saw Tyler, but they didn’t find him. They found his body yards upon yards away by a creek. Tyler had been reclined on his knees with his forehead against the ground, immobile and dead. I refused to ID him. I couldn’t see those empty eye sockets again.
When I recovered from the event, I wanted to know what happened. I emailed the pathologist who performed Tyler’s autopsy and practically begged for answers. I needed a logical explanation for what I saw. He explained how they were going through routine procedure when they hit a minor roadblock. When they sliced Tyler open, dead bees poured out. His body had been literally bloated with bees. His eyes were missing. His jaw was broken, completely unhinged. His teeth were gone along with his tongue which was replaced with wax. The worst part was this. His organs were gone. All that was left was the skeleton, muscles, and tissues which seemed to be the base for the extreme amounts of honeycomb within his chest cavity. The pathologist’s only theory was that the bees devoured his organs, but bees aren’t carnivores.
Credit: Ariel Lowe
Written in the Style of M.R. James
By J. Bailey-Hartsel
Some time ago, I was asked by several former colleagues to tell them a ghost story. We had gathered for an evening of socializing, a small group of academics from my department at a small but formerly respectable liberal arts university in West Central Wisconsin. As such evenings go when a group of academics cluster around a table for a satisfying meal, we had been drinking wine and discussing the sad state of affairs in contemporary trends in education, literature and film. I will spare you the details of the conversation – people in my profession seem to feel they need to use all the words they know in the course of conversation, and department meetings with those of my ilk can run far longer than is truly necessary.
Suffice to say for the purposes of what I am about to relate to you, eventually the conversation took a darker turn – perhaps due to the season, as we were approaching the end of October. An associate professor I knew slightly began to bemoan the dearth of truly frightening narratives that had been a hallmark of the Romantic period. There were no longer Gothic tales regaling the reader of “things that go bump in the night”; no gloomy mysteries, no startling specters, no malicious supernatural forces imposing themselves upon sympathetic characters naïve in the darker dealings of death (as are all we the living truly naïve of such things).
I had been silent for some time (an unusual thing for an academic, but then I was known by my colleagues to be a person of quieter contemplations), when our newly elected Chair of the department asked me whether I knew of any truly frightening stories. In fact, I did, and due to perhaps one half glass of cabernet sauvignon too many, dared to say as much. All eyes turned to me.
“Tell us,” urged the bombastic professor to my right, a gentleman of considerable letters from an East Coast Ivy League college. “Is someone writing frightening fiction that I have not yet heard about?” His tone indicated that he found this fact rather difficult to believe. If that indeed was the case, he would be further disbelieving of the tale I could relate to the roundtable of academics before me.
“Not written,” I said slowly, tracing the rim of my wine glass with the tip of my finger, “something that was related to me this summer whilst on vacation.”
“Oh my,” chortled the Ivy Leaguer, “a real ghost story?” He glanced about the table, looking for matched reactions to my admission, and several faculty members, though not all, joined in with his forced mirth. For my part, I half-smiled and replied, “but aren’t all stories somewhat real? Certainly authors of such tales have some autobiographical reason to engage in such wild narratives.”
“Indeed,” replied the Chair, smiling at me in an encouraging way. “I’m very interested to hear what you have to say.” And so I told them, as I am about to tell you, the story of two naïve characters and their dogs.
I had returned to this beach on Wisconsin’s only peninsula for nearly 20 years. I rent the larger of three cottages on a quiet, narrow, lake side road each season in August. The cottage is simple and self-catering, and despite the sand carried in inevitably from the beach, is always clean and comfortable. However, last summer the cabin I normally rented was undergoing renovations to the roof and was unavailable for renting. In lieu of staying in the cottage I’d grown to love for it’s solitude, I opted to rent the smallest of the three for my fortnight stay.
The Firefly (for that was the name of the cabin) had always been visible to me from the west side of my usual rental. A one room cottage with a tiny kitchen and even tinier lavatory, it was nonetheless a pleasant place with a comfortable double bed, a picnic table in lieu of a dining table, and a small, working stone fireplace for colder nights. The décor was as rustic as the cottage. The furniture sported faded plaids, the windows red and white gingham check curtains and old photographs of the lake adorned the walls. One piece, however, stood out from the rest; the wall opposite the view of Lake Michigan held a round, convex and grotesquely ornate mirror, far too ripe with gilded vines and three chubby cherubs holding bows and arrows. The mirror hung from a ribbon of faded red velvet ribbon tied in a bow which draped either side of the glass, which was dark in places where the silver had warped and worn off the back. The owner, in handing me the key, stood to look at it with me.
“It’s ghastly, isn’t it?” she remarked, without a smile on her face. “We don’t know how it got here. A woman renting the cottage during my father’s time found it in the storm cellar, apparently.” Then she turned to me with a curious expression on her face and asked, “… do you like ghost stories?”
I was startled by the question which arose seemingly from nowhere, but replied that in my profession I could never turn down a good story, ghost stories (usually quite disappointing) notwithstanding. I retrieved a bottle of wine and we sat at the small picnic table, where she told me the following tale.
The cottages I had rented for nearly two decades were built near the turn of the century by the current owner’s grandfather and father. As a child, the woman’s father told her the cottages were built on top of an Indian burial site. She had grown up happily in the cottage that stood before a dense wood, had learned to swim in the lake, ride a bicycle on the narrow lane that separated the cottages from beach. Her father rented the two other cottages – the one in which I usually passed two weeks in August, and the other in which the owner and I were sitting. One year, when she was sixteen, a woman, newly widowed, came to spend a quite few weeks by the lake to calm and ready herself for a life alone. She brought with her as company her small dog – a Pekinese or some such thing – named Francesca. The dog was affectionate and adored her mistress, who in turn bestowed such fondness upon the tiny creature it was obvious that she had never had children of her own. To occupy her mind, she had determined to teach her small companion to swim in the lake. It was her to leash Francesca and draw her out further and further into the waters, until finally, with patience, the tiny dog would paddle happily around with her owner.
On her second night in the cottage, the sky broke open with incredible power, and the storm forced her to retreat to a small storm cellar which one accessed through at the back of the house with her dog. Whilst waiting out the storm with Francesca panting softly on her knees and only a kerosene lamp for light, the woman took stock of her surroundings. The cellar was dank and smelled of lake and must. Cobwebs hung thickly from the beams across the ceiling. Along with the old chair in which she sat, there were shelves stacked against one wall, a crate full of old, dusty children’s books and an item wrapped in a moth-eaten blanket leaning against the wall behind the stairs upon which she had descended. The woman set the dog on the dirt floor and more than the sake of boredom than curiosity, began to unwrap the dusty, decaying blanket using only two delicate fingertips. Outside, the storm gained strength and howled against the horizontal storm doors overhead. In the cellar, Francesca began to bark furiously as the blanket dropped away to reveal the same grossly overwrought mirror hanging now in the small cottage I’d rented.
Perhaps owing to the tastes of the time, or perhaps revealing a lapse of taste on the part of the widow, she opted to bring the mirror above ground and into the cottage once the storm had carried itself away. She retrieved a long red velvet ribbon from her cases, secured it to the mirror and hung the thing exactly where it still remains to this day. No dared move it following the events of that long ago August, and so it has been allowed to offend those with more tasteful sensibilities unabated; but since that fateful summer the mirror has apparently reflected nothing more than a strangely warped and blotchy view the rest of the cottage and the parcel of beach that can be seen through the building’s large front windows.
The owner of the cottages fell silent for a bit, until, thinking she’d lost her train of thought, I prompted her to continue. “If you’re suggesting that the mirror played some part in a tragedy,” I said at length, “I can hardly accept this on faith. It isn’t pleasant to look at, certainly, but that does not incriminate the object as having committed some sort of crime.”
The woman looked at me with some surprise. “Oh, it isn’t the mirror itself that is the issue,” she said slowly, as if explaining her story to a child, “It’s what appeared in the mirror that caused the – shall we say, “event”? – to occur.” Then she lapsed again into silence, glancing at the mirror from the corners of her eyes.
“And what precisely did the mirror reflect?” I asked more out of courtesy than curiosity. It was getting late and I had yet to have eaten my midday meal, and was anxious that she complete her story in a timely matter so that I could boil myself an egg or two and have my evening meal in comfortable solitude.
“Well, that’s just it,” the woman responded. “It didn’t reflect anything. It… well, it created an image, if you will. An image of a young man and a dog, walking in from the lake. My great-uncle, to be precise. Or at least, that’s what we were led to understand. It was, however, quite impossible that his image should appear. He and his dog drowned just after the turn of the century when he was just sixteen years old. They both died. Out there.” She turned and nodded toward the lake. “Just off the end of the canal where the lighthouse now stands. His little skiff went down in a storm.”
“I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t understand – how could this woman assume it was your great uncle she’d seen? It could have been anyone, with any dog. Or her own imagination.”
“No, no,” the woman said, and reached across the table and laid her hand on my arm, looking intently into my eyes. “No, she saw him. She described both him and the dog precisely – my father showed her a photograph and she nearly fainted. No, it was him. Come back from the other side some forty years after his death with his dog at his side.”
The morning following the storm, the widow awakened to the sounds of workmen in the yard. She dressed lightly in her swimming gear, preparing for a humid summer day and anticipating the cool waters of a lake reflecting a passively blue sky up to the horizon. She wandered outside with her usual morning cup of Earl Grey to survey the damage. Branches lay strewn across the grounds of the small cabin, and the workmen were busy at work dismembering the desiccated trunk of a long-dead blue spruce that had fallen dangerously close to the Firefly’s front door.
As she stepped daintily around the fallen bracken strewn across the small grass yard, the workmen glanced appreciatively at the woman carrying her small dog in her arms. She was comely for her age, with soft, lightly lined pale skin, blonde hair and blue eyes that belied her Scandinavian roots. A tall and gracile woman, she carried herself with refinement and innate dignity but also with an openness of expression that indicated a woman who may have become used to the finer things of life without losing an instinctive gentleness of spirit that was the hallmark of her personality.
The foreman of the crew at work pushed his slouchy hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead with a red neckerchief. He held out a hand to help the lovely woman step over a fallen branch. “Mind the undertow, Ma’am,” he offered gallantly as she glided toward the beach with Francesca. “The lake is always a bit rough following a storm.” She smiled at him beautifully and thanked him with a slight and endearing nod, and continued on her way.
The beach grass swayed benignly against her ankles as she made her way through a soft dune to the rain-mottled beach, Francesca trotting happily beside her. They paused, the woman looking daintily away, whilst Francesca completed her morning business, then continued to the lake. The water lapped delicately at her feet whilst Francesca lapped delicately at the water. The lake beckoned, promising cool weightlessness, a floating and forgiving weightlessness free of the crashing weather from the night before. She moved further out into the waves which swayed against her ankles, then her calves, her knees and her finely muscled upper legs. Francesca, holding tightly at the far end of her leash, whimpered anxiously and paced back and forth with taught nervousness, wanting to be closer to her mistress but showing a marked resistance to the waters which seemed to draw the woman further and further out. The little dog sat on her haunches and panted as the woman, turning her back to the lake, pulled finally against the long lead. Francesca rose slightly, setting her surprisingly strong hind legs in resistance to the tugs. The widow tugged harder. Francesca resisted further, twisting her little neck and head against the pressure of her collar and.
“Come on, Francesca,” the woman called in deliberate soothing tones, assuring the small creature that all was well. The water swelled against the back of her thighs, forcing her to take a small and involuntary step back toward the beach. The leash loosened slightly and the little dog sat back down, her pink tongue pulsing with her pants. “’Cesca!” the woman finally called in sharper tones which were styled with the intention of a command which was not to be ignored. “Come!” The little dog clutched the beach sand deeper with damp paws and stood suddenly, barking madly. “Come here!” the woman ordered again, and was about to pull the leash far more firmly when suddenly a rogue wave which had been rising steadily behind her struck fast against the beautiful woman’s finely sculpted back and powerfully pushed her off her feet, forcing the breath out of her.
Francesca, the beach, the dune grass, the sky, the clouds, and the workers in the small yard disappeared suddenly as the widow was thrown forward and thrust beneath the waves of the first watery onslaught. The sounds of birds, the breeze, the workers dispatching the fallen branches and the small dog barking its warning were replaced with the muffled, subsurface roar of Lake Michigan recovering from the previous evenings severe storm.
Her footing gone, the woman suddenly found the sand floor of the lake beneath her hands and clutched at it helplessly before her body acted of its own accord. Her arms pushed firmly against the sand beneath her hands and tried to force her body upwards toward sunlight and air. Her face broke the surface and she managed one grateful gasp that partially filled her lungs. Her feet scrambled against the sand beneath her and she fought for her footing before the second wave suddenly crashed overhead and forced her back down beneath the waters.
Then, the undertow found her. She felt herself pushed forward and then sucked backwards with sudden force. The water seethed against her ears, filled her nose and then tossed her helplessly upward. Briefly, she saw the sky. She saw a confused blur of normal life continuing without her – workers hacking away at fallen limbs, birds calling sweetly, the breeze blowing her dog’s furious barking back toward her cottage – before another wave tossed her hopelessly forward, under and then back toward the lake’s distant horizon once again.
In a confused moment, the undertow felt like fingers clutching her ankles, her calves, her waist, her shoulders. Safety was either above her or beneath her – she couldn’t be sure. The strains of surface waters moving in opposite directions of the deep beneath it tossed her like a small stone. She felt the pressure of the lake pushing against her chest, filling her ears and nostrils. She felt the air moving upwards and out of her mouth, and the metallic taste of lake water and fish moved with oily slowness against her tongue. She struggled for what felt like an endlessly long moment against the waves, struggling to get footing against sand which slid infuriatingly away from her toes with every second that passed.
Suddenly, fingers stronger than the undertow that sought to draw her out to see grasped her upper arms. She felt hands beneath her arms and arms encircling her waist. She felt herself drawn suddenly and sharply forward and up as two men drew her up out of the water and her lungs burned as oxygen flooded her body. Lunging forward, the two workers who had finally turned at the furious sounds of barking and had seen her struggles dragged the widow out of the lake and up into calmer and shallower waters. All three fell against the shore gasping and crawling toward the other workers who had dropped their axes and saws rushed forward to help them all out of the lake.
On her knees, her hands gratefully gripping solid land, the woman vomited weak streams of lake water which ran from her lungs and up her throat to pour out her mouth and nose onto the wet sands beneath her. The widow was distantly aware of shouting, calling, asking her questions. She felt the warm, soft tongue of Francesca against her face, and pulled the trembling dog close in her arms, the damp leash tangling around her wrists and the dog’s fur hot against her hands. Opening her eyes finally, still panting and coughing for plentiful air, she looked up at the beach, the trees blowing in the summer breeze, the workers still rushing forward to help, the clouds like soft white sleep against the sky, and then blissful darkness.
The widow spent the rest of that day lying in beautifully artistic repose against soft pillows in her cottage’s double feather bed, Francesca sleeping peacefully curled beneath her mistresses’ right arm. She was gloriously pale, which only served to accent the blue of her eyes and dusky pink lips. She was a gracious and elegant invalid, nearly regal in the way she received visitors who either expressed sincere regrets and brought nourishing soups, or visitors who merely wanted to take some small part in the near-drama that had occurred just off the beach on the small, private road that shared a narrow and sandy earthly space with Lake Michigan.
Once the respectable time for sick-bed visits to occur had ended, the woman rose slowly, disturbing (however stylishly) her small dog’s slumber, and went to survey the damage to her beautiful face and her long, blonde hair which had curled prettily from the lake waters and the day’s humidity. She stood before the grotesque mirror she had retrieved from the storm cellar and slowly wound her hair into a soft coif atop the crown of her finely formed head. She glanced away for a moment to locate several bobby-pins, and when she looked up again she gasped in astonishment, her eyes wide and frightened. There, in the mirror, were two shadowy and indistinct figures moving forward from what appeared to be some distance like mirages that appear above hot sands, their outlines shimmered slightly at the edges, making them appear as ghastly shape shifters must to superstitious people who believed in things such as vampyres and werewolves, ghosts and daemons. The first figure was human in form, the second much shorter, reaching only to its companion’s waist (if such atrocities sported waists) and appeared to be crawling on all fours.
Alarmed, she spun round, one hand still securing her hair atop her head, the other holding out a u-shaped bobby-pin as if it were an effective weapon against anything other than stray locks.
There was nothing behind her. Slowly, her breath and body trembling, she turned back to the mirror and saw her own eyes staring back at her in wild alarm. And there, on the right hand side of the glass, was simply reflected the candlelight room, the front windows framing an evening sky, the lake beyond washing purple in the dying light of day.
With shaking fingers, she bravely arranged her hair with careful precision, smoothed her lace robe and pinched her cheeks to bring color to her face all whilst staring wide-eyed at her reflection in the fearsome mirror. The candlelight played garishly upon the surface of the gild covering the leaves and figures on the overwrought frame. The cherubs appeared to smirk with mordant humor, pointing poison-tipped arrows into the glasses’ depths and aimed directly at her heart. She backed slowly away from the mirror, the candlelight forming attractive hollows in her face, making her cheekbones stand out and her startled blue eyes to spark in the fading light. Francesca whined for attention and dinner, breaking the woman’s fascination with the mirror and gave her something else to focus on besides her strange hallucination. Nonetheless, when she went to bed that night she sat with her back against the headboard, her knees and blankets drawn up, her little dog cuddled protectively in her arms. She sat as such for hours until the extraordinarily stressful day finally exhausted her once again, and she slept fitfully until dawn.
The next morning dawned clean, cool and damp. The Widow woke as the very fingertips of light found their way from the horizon across the lake, along the beach and up across to smudge themselves along the woman’s face. She could hear the faint “shush” of a gentle surf at a distance, and turned on her side restlessly before finally opening her eyes. Accustomed as she was to having Francesca curled in upon herself atop a tufted, violet-velvet pillow the Widow kept on the mattress next to her, she was startled to find the dog’s cushion empty. She raised herself on one elbow.
“’Cesca?” She waited. There were no sounds of tiny nails scrabbling along the cabin’s wood floor, no soft jingle of the dog’s nametag playing against her collar hook. “Francesca!” the Widow called out rather more loudly than she expected to, and she sat up fully in bed, slightly wild-eyed, the fears of the evening before still gripping her imagination.
A soft, groaning exhale came from low beneath the foot of the bed. Gathering the skirts of her white cotton nightgown around her legs, the Widow crept slowly forward on the mattress on all fours, trembling, and then cautiously peered over the bed’s edge. Her mind manufactured all sundry of horrible sights – Francesca bloody and mauled, Francesca fighting for her breath, Francesca in the grips of some wild animal that had found its way in during the night – in all scenarios, Francesca at the foot of the bed, fighting for her life.
But there Francesca sat quite still and upright on the floor between the bed and the fireplace, staring fixedly up at the gaudy gilt mirror. “Bad girl,” the Widow exhaled without any heat nor anger. “Didn’t you hear me calling you?” Francesca didn’t seem to hear her at all, in fact, but sat rigid, slightly shaking with some sort of internal intensity, her little eyes fixed on the mirror over the fireplace mantel.
With growing apprehension, the Widow found herself raising her eyes to the mirror.
The glass glowed with the reflective glory of a beautiful dawn. The sun, giant on the horizon, burned brilliantly, throwing up flames of orange, red and gold toward the sky and across the lake to the beach. The waters of Lake Michigan lay quietly in its bed this fine morning and blushed softly with the mirrored magnificence of the sunrise, as if embarrassed by its behavior of the previous day. A bevy of early morning fishing boats seeking the best catches steamed out from the canal and passed by as shadows all along the horizon. In the middle distance, an early morning swimmer emerged slowly from the waves toward shore. A soft breeze tossed the dune grasses gently, shaking early day dew from the blades of green and amber, and drawing brief but diamond sparkling sun showers from the leaves of Quaking Aspens.
Daybreak has a magical ability to chase away night terrors. All things that habitually skulked through the dark of night vanished in the face of the sun. The Widow stood transfixed at the mirror, watching life resume its business with seemingly no sense of any scars of fright one may have incurred the night before. It calmed her, filled with both hope and a sense of wellbeing that comes when a dark fear goes unrealized and renders itself ridiculous in the light of day. She stood next to her dog, both gazing at the mirror, watching the swimmer emerge slowly from the surf. Backlit by the light, the silhouetted swimmer appeared to be towing something at the end of a rope. The closer it came to shore, the more it became obvious the swimmer was a boy or a young girl, thin and athletic in outline, the rope a tight line between it’s hand and whatever was tethered to it. Enthralled by the idyll before her, the Widow watched the reflection of boats passing peacefully into the distance as the sun rose higher, the light now touching the horizon with the briefest of kisses. The swimmer had won the shore, and paused on the beach to allow what was now obviously a dog to vigorously shake the waters from its fur.
Francesca growled softly, her brown eyes wide, her body trembling with stress. The Widow, too engaged in the pastoral before her to notice, followed the swimmer’s ascent from the water to the beach, from the beach through the dune grasses, past the Quaking Aspens and toward the road. The little dog’s growls became low yips which quickly turned to a salvo of frantic yelping. The dog then leaped to its feet to brace herself against the ferocity of her own barking.
Broken from her reverie, the Widow turned her head to frown at the little dog for the briefest of moments, annoyed that her pygmy companion had broken her blissful morning reverie. Then, turning instinctively back toward the mirror in which lay a likeness of peace and tranquility, she felt her breath stop in her throat and her heart leap violently. Reflected in the mirror was the front room of the cabin, framing within it the door to the place. Just outside the door on the stone step, both dripping with lake water, were the shadowy figures of a young man and his dog. Staring in horror, knowing somewhere deep in her bones that there was no way the early swimmer could have breached the distance between shore and door in a mere moment, she watched in horror as the boy raised a spectral hand to knock and acquire entrance into the cabin. Reeling about in fear and confusion, Francesca’s warning barks echoing in her ears, the woman’s gaze swung to the front door.
There was no one there. Just the empty front step, beyond that the tiny road, the dune grasses, the Quaking Aspens, the beach, the lake, the fading glory of a dying dawn that heralds the burning promise of a bright day, and the fishing boats slipping into invisibility beyond the horizon as if they had never existed.
Bending down with trembling hands the Widow pulled Francesca up into her arms and backed away around the edge of the bed, away from both the mirror and front door, and, sitting suddenly on the wooden floor, pushed herself against a far wall, between the bed and the dresser, her breath scraping as best it could from beneath her pounding heart. Francesca squirmed frantically in her mistress’ arms, pushing with whatever might a small dog has against the Widow’s chest and belly to be free. Finally freeing herself, the dog ran back around the end of the bed to stand and savagely snarl and bark at the mirror.
From her place on the floor, the woman stared in abject terror up at the ghastly mirror, grabbing with some vague but irrational instinct at her bedsheets. The shawl she wore to warm her shoulders when she read at night propped up against bed pillows fell with a soft, silky hiss into her lap. It had been a wedding gift from her husband, a man she had not truly loved but had endlessly respected. He’d proven himself a good man and a decent husband, had provided for her and had indulged his beautiful young wife with both wisdom and whim. The memory of him, coming unbidden, gave her some brief relief from her terror. Grasping her shawl with sudden firm resolute, the Widow forced herself to her feet and raced across the short distance from bed to wall to fling the shawl over the face of the mirror.
The small cabin was filled with a sudden, soft silence. Francesca, her barking instantly stopped with the veiling of the mirror, sat down once again with her tiny ears pricked and her small head cocked to one side as she gazed up at the Widow. Beyond the silence of her immediate surroundings, she heard once again the gentle passes of waves moving back and forth upon the shore and the rustle of leaves in the gentle breeze. She stood, panting, one place delicate hand pressed against her breast to stop the pounding of her heart, and waited for her mind to calm itself. She was only certain of one thing; she had to get out of the cabin and away from the veiled mirror. Perhaps another cabin in the small resort stood empty. Perhaps she could rapidly pack and leave her vacation early. Perhaps… perhaps….
First things first. She and Francesca needed to flee the small bungalow. The back door of the cabin through which she had escaped with Francesca the night of the storm was not reflected in the mirror, and therefore she considered it “safe.” She could dress, leash the dog, and escape quickly out that door without any fear of passing before the fireplace or the veiled mirror suspended above it.
Crawling on her hands and knees, she crept from her place beside the bed and into the small kitchen, then reached up, unlatched and opened the inner door, then hesitated. Francesca had run off twice before since the Widow had owned her, and both occasions had been heart-rendering until the little dog was back in her arms. Knowing the dog would run out at any opportunity afforded it, the Widow allowed the screen door to remain latched at the last moment. She then turned about, still on all fours, and crawled back to the comparative safety of the narrow space between bed and dresser.
Rising slowly, shakily, she yanked open drawers and dove her hands into the dresser, dressing herself hurriedly and with much less care than she generally prepared herself for any given day. She donned a top that didn’t quite match the skirt she’d yanked from a drawer. She buttoned the blouse rapidly, wrongly, and found herself nearly rending buttons from the cotton fabric in trying to get the thing on correctly. Finally, she drew on slippers rather than her shoes which were lying further away, and reached behind herself for Francesca’s leash, which she every night she hung on a peg near the top of the bed.
It wasn’t there.
Appalled, her breath escaped in one giant rush and, dizzy, she dropped instantly to her knees. Panting, her heart still throbbing painfully, she nervously looked beneath the bed only to find fine balls of dust and a pen that had dropped from the nightstand and rolled against the wall. She frantically searched beneath and behind the nightstand nearest her, then rose and frantically tore the blankets from the bed, sent clothes from dresser drawers flying, cast about helplessly on the floor beneath the dresser and under the blanket chest. Nothing. Raising herself to a kneeling position, she cast a furtive glance toward the mirror.
And there it was. In her haste to cover the damnable thing, she had somehow tangled the leash in her shawl and had tossed both over the glass one and one together. The braided leather leash drooped where it had caught about the head of a chuckling cherub near the top of the frame toward the fireplace beneath it, the silver clasp dangling over the edge of the mantel.
There were most like at least half a dozen ways the Widow could have retrieved her pet and carried both it and herself to safety, but a mind in turmoil is a labyrinth of intellectual failings and loss of common sense. At this moment, everything depended upon the braided leash capped with a silver clasp dangling from the veiled mirror. Even the shawl, the very thing which had brought memories of her husband which had allowed her the strength to place a flimsy silk barrier between herself and the loss of her very sanity would have to remain behind. All she wanted was safe escape for herself and Francesca. And she would do anything for the tiny dog that had taken the place of all the children she would never have.
With aching slowness, the Widow crawled round the end of the bed and approached the fireplace. Francesca danced backwards a few steps then lowered her front legs and raised her back end in the air, thinking play was in the offering. Ignoring her dog for the moment, the Widow raised her hand up to the mantel which thankfully, from her low vantage point, hid the mirror from her view. Her fingers, reaching, found the silver clasp and then gripped it firmly. With a thankful sigh, the Widow pulled on the clasp to bring the leash down to the floor. A blissful few inches of the leash slipped further into her grasp, the stopped. She tugged. The leash held tight, caught firmly by the frame as if some fat, gilded baby held it tight in its chubby little hand.
The Widow’s eyes filled with tears. Wiping angrily at them with her free hand, the woman gave a single firm tug to try and free the leash from the clutches of the frame. The mirror, in response, leant dangerously forward. To pull any harder would most likely mean pulling the entirety of the heavy monstrosity down upon her head. Suddenly sobbing, the Widow turned and leant her back against the stone side of the fireplace, and gave herself over to sorrow.
It was not an emotion she was unused to. It arose in her soul from loss – the loss of her father at an early age. The loss of her mother’s attentions and affection as she watched her drift further into the dark grief of her own widowhood. The loss of a much loved betrothed in the Great War. The loss of one child, then another, before she was informed of her inability to ever bear a son or a daughter to full term. All those losses leading to a hardness within her which then sought comfort in more concrete terms – she had found solace, finally, in the good reputation of her husband and the money and prestige they afforded her through what she’d always considered a loveless marriage. She’d learned to find peace in a doting husband besotted with the beautiful girl who had agreed to marry him. She acquired a bounty of beautiful clothes, expensive jewels, and enjoyed (as much as she was able) epically long journeys to Europe, extravagant meals boasting flesh of fowel and beast and bounties from the sea and prided herself in the beautifully turned-out Victorian home which boasted more bedrooms than it could ever fill. All of them cold comforts, now. Now, faced with the terror before her, the fear of the immediate loss of her mind drove her deeper into darkness where she feared she would meet the spectre of her own mother in her darkest days – unwashed and unchanged for days, hair disheveled, eyes wild and wide and at the same time sightless to what was directly before her, the images her mother saw coming only from deep within the dark void that comprised her grief.
The image of her own mother’s unspeakable grief internal torture brought within her some steel of reserve to save herself from any more loss. She would not lose Francesca. She would not lose her own mind. She would not lose her will to live. She reached behind herself and pressed her hands against the solid stone of the fireplace. Pushing herself thus to her feet, she stood for a moment, still, straight backed and stern, facing away from the thing of her dread until her tears stopped. Those that remained she uncharacteristically wiped away on the sleeves of her blouse. Then she turned with fierce determination to face the veiled mirror, and then moved with glycerine slowness to pull the leash down from its height.
The shawl she had cast over it was billowing as curtains hung before an open window on a breezy day. From behind the blowing veil she could hear the surf Lake Michigan, louder than it should have been given her albeit short distance to the thing itself. She could smell the fishiness lakeness in the breeze as it blustered out from the mirror. She could feel its breath upon her face, feel it blow back the auburn curls of her hair. But steeled as she was against Loss, she nonetheless reached out away from her fear and sought to pull the leash from the mirror’s frame.
The breeze from the mirror lifted a corner of her shawl, and as she reached out toward the thing, she glimpsed for the merest moment a hand likewise reaching out for her. Before she could react, the hand left the confines of the mirror and reached into her reality, where it gripped her wrist firmly, then grappled hungrily for her forearm where it wrapped it’s fingers tightly about her flesh and bone like a person will apply a deathly grip even to its rescuer to save itself from drowning. Francesca barked before shrieking once in fear or pain (or both), and then all was silence save for the soft , motherly “shush” of waves upon sand.
I fell as silent as my colleagues gathered around the table with me. After a pause, my department chair asked, “…But is that all there is?” “Yes,” responded another colleague, “what happens next?” “Surely,” said another, “one cannot end a story there. What became of the woman? The mirror? The little dog, for God’s sake?”
“Ach,” said my bombastic male colleage, stabbing his fork into his dessert, “Chihuahas. If that’d been my dog, I’d have shot it in the pooper.”
“It wasn’t a Chihuaha,” someone corrected him, “it was a Pomeranian.” “No,” replied someone else, “a Toy Poodle.”
“Irrelevant!” my male colleague replied, downing the last quarter of his port in one gulp of gusto. “It was a dog. That is the fact. The type of dog is the fiction. All ghost stories contain more of the latter than the former.”
“But surely,” one of our newer faculty replied, “one must accept that all fiction contains within it at least kernels of reality. Should we not as academics at least consider that this story offered to us tonight,” here he nodded toward me, “carries with it at least the possibility of truth? Might it not be possible that things could happen?”
“Possible!” the bombastic male responded, “but not probable, my dear boy. You must learn that difference at once. Truth is not fiction, nor vice versa. Here are truths for you – dogs exist. Mirrors exist. Fragile females exist. Lake Michigan, most certainly, exists. The rest? …” and then he let his sentence trail off, waving his hand in the air as if he were shooing away at a noisome gnat.
After this brief exchange in relation to my tale, talk turned again to academia – to curriculums and assessments and quite dull things the likes of which I shall not bore you with here. I remained silent, drank my coffee and ate the remainder of a rather fine vanilla pumpkin custard that I had ordered for my own (shall we say “just”?) dessert.
Upon leaving, as I was buttoning my coat and chatting aimlessly with my Department Chair, she leaned forward suddenly and peered at my necklace. “Now, that’s a pretty thing,” she murmured. I wore a small, braided silver chain upon which hung a disk of beveled sterling with the initial “F” set in fine, pave diamonds. She took the disk between to fingers to admire it more closely.
“It was my great-aunt’s,” I told her, “left to me when she passed long before I was born. Her name was Finnula. I was named for her.” “Well,” my chair replied, tightening her scarf whilst staring at the pendant, “it’s beautiful. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.”
The first snow of the year had begun to fall whilst we were gathered at table. It’s not unusual for this part of the country to see frost and snow long before others ever do. I walked into the night and took a private moment at the corner to gather my thoughts. When it snows at night and one has the opportunity to look up at the sky from beneath a streetlight, it seems as though the sky does not exist and the snow falls from eternity itself. I thought about what I’d related at the table and also those things I did not relate. I thought about whether I regretted leaving out parts of the tale while embellishing other things to obscure what my colleagues considered, “Truth.”
Instinctively, from long practice, I gently took the pendant around my neck and set it inside my blouse, where it lay cold as ice, waiting to warm against my skin. My fingers slipped into the placket of my shirt, I traced the diamond “F” with my fingertip, glad I had not turned the pendant around. On the backside of the shiny silver disc is engraved in sweet scrollwork letters a single word: “Francesca.”
Credit: J. Bailey-Hartsel